Monday, November 12, 2007

Jim McCarthy is excited that 3 out of 4 people read a book last year

When the AP did their recent poll on literacy, they found that one in four Americans didn’t read a book last year. I know a lot of people who found that news depressing, but my own reaction was more, “Rock! Three out of four people read a book last year!”

Let me just get one important fact out there—I’m not an optimistic person by nature. If I’m excited about a concert, when it starts I’m less, “This is gonna be great!” and more, “I hope the speakers don’t fall on anyone.” I worry—it’s just what I do. When I tell my mother I’m traveling, she usually replies with something comforting like, “I hope the plane stays up.” Me too. It’s in the genes. Which is to say: when people proclaim the death of the written word, and I of all people think, “You seriously worry too much…,” that’s saying something.

So 25 out of 100 people didn’t read a book last year. At least one or two of them must not be able to read, right? (Note to self: look up American illiteracy rates) And then you have people who just don’t like to read. I’m not thrilled with that fact, but I’m at peace with it. Because elsewhere in that group of 100 are people who read 20, 30, 40 books a year—folks for whom the written word can’t be replaced by TV, movies, the internet, or any other media yet to be created. Sure, we have more entertainment options now, and people have a little bit less time to read. But do we actually think books are so easily replaced?

When it comes right down it, there is little I find as satisfying as a great read, and it has nothing to do with any lack of affection on my part for every other type of entertainment.

Perhaps it’s because I’m consistently surrounded by book lovers (it comes with the job), but the chance that books will become passé seems a bit unlikely to me. All the people who were up in arms over this poll only were so because they’re readers. And readers are still in a majority.

What I do find unnerving is that other poll from a year or so back that indicated 80% of Americans wanted to write a book. First of all, that means that at least 5% of people who want to write a book didn’t read one in the past year. That is frightening. Truly. I honestly don’t believe someone can be a great writer without being well-read, let alone without being just…read. Beyond that, if four out of five people in the entire country are going to be sending query letters…that’s a lot of digging we’re going to have to do, not to mention a lot of awkward cocktail party chatter. “What do you do for a living? Oh! Well, let me tell you, I have the most wonderful idea for a book. It’s about kittens.” Scintillating stuff. There’s nothing like dodging the mother of the bride at a wedding after she tells you about her “brilliant” concept for a picture book about cheese. Not that I don’t love cheese.

I kid (mostly). I’ve said it before, and I still mean it: I love the slush pile and the feeling of potential when I dig in. It’s intimidating at times because there’s just so much, but finding something brilliant in the mass is such a thrill. Just like starting a book and finding yourself instantly hooked.

I digress… So why do you read? And why do you write? And am I overly optimistic in thinking books will always be around?


  1. I was excited by that, too, because I know a lot of people who are very smart and almost literate, but who don't read . . . books. They read magazines, and newspapers, and websites. No books (one of the friends is married to an editor at S&S. She DOES read books).

    I love reading because it shows me a world where words are as important as I think they are, and worlds I would never visit on my own. I write because I like having an excuse not to do the dishes.

    Oh, and I love cheese, too.

  2. 3 out 4 aint bad. I too think books will always be around.

  3. I do a lot of reading online, but I still love books because they're portable. Sure, there are little electronic gizmos you can get now, but there's something comforting about a book. And it doesn't need batteries. Ever.

    As for why I write, it's because the characters in my head won't shut up until I do! Duh. :-)

  4. I'm still laughing about the fact that 5% of people didn't read a book last year and yet want to write one. That's hilarious. I can even see a book being written ABOUT that person who wants to write a book but doesn't read.

  5. I read because reading a book is the closest I will ever come to connecting fully with another human being. When I read, I share the author's experiences and see the world through their eyes. I learn in a couple hours things they read a hundred books to puzzle out.

    How I appreciate all those hours they spent investigating, questioning, researching, and arranging sentences, just so that I--some stranger--can spend a few hours sharing it all with them!

    Because I'm an author, too, I know how paradoxical it is that the writer who touches me the most will remain a stranger. My pleasure in reading their book in hidden from them. The authors I love best probably spend a lot of time, as I do, wondering if it is worth the time and the effort to write books in a world where people prefer to watch the movie. They won't know the thrill I got following their argument to its conclusion.

    I write nonfiction because there are things people really need to know. I write fiction because there are things I really need to know. I've sold a lot of nonfiction. I'm working on selling the fiction.

    But I worry about the future of the printed book. Too many people, even educated people, seem to view reading a book as something they ought to do because it is good for them rather than something they can't help but do because it is fun.

    Plus, if I remember that poll correctly, a lot of those people who said they read one book last year added that the book they read was the Bible.

    And beyond that, well, we all know people aren't truthful with pollsters, so I don't really trust that figure. I suspect that what that poll really discovered is that three out of four people were embarrassed to admit they hadn't read a book last year.

  6. I read for the sheer joy of it. I didn't read books for quite a number of years, even when I commuted into the city and had three hours of free time per day, I didn't read. It was only after I had my youngest that I picked up books again. What else was I to do in the wee hours of the morning or during nap time? My love of reading returned with a vengence and I became entralled with the lives of the characters and then I began to speculate about the authors as well. What were they thinking as they wrote? How did these ideas come to fruition?

    So, I wrote the authors whose books I enjoyed and began a dialog with them and with other readers and writers. I haven't looked back since.

    I decided to try my hand at writing because I opened myself to ideas and scenarios that I picked up in everyday life. I find that I write now because I love bringing a story to life. I love seeing how the characters grow in that story. And I guess we'll just have to see where this will all go.

  7. Those numbers come from two different polls so I don't think it's very realistic to overlap them. 5% is easily accounted for just in the wording of a question. Besides, wanting to write a book and doing it are two entirely different things.

    But it is a fun idea, isn't it? And you know, some of those books written by the 5% might turn out decent in spite of everything. One of my kids avoids books almost aggressively, but when he actually puts pen to paper, it never fails to amaze me how well the words flow.

  8. Hey they said computers would make the paper-less office and that hasn't happened yet! So books will definitely be around for a long while to come. I too know many people who don't read books but who read newspapers or magazines. I'm the opposite - I read books. I love stories and I love to create stories. I wonder how many of the people who say want to write a book realise the time and dedication it takes in producing one? And actually write the book?

  9. Jim,
    I do believe that books will be around forever. I remember an episode of the Twilight Zone where a gentleman snuck into a valut during a lunch break to read a book because everyone thought that reading was stupid. Shortly after, a nuclear explosion killed everyone except him. He didn't care, he went over to his local library and stacked all of the books on the massive steps. When he picked up the first book to read, he broke his glasses. LOL.

    I read because I love to learn new things about people and places. I also love to read what another writer created. I write because I want to share my imagination with the world! :*)

  10. Yay 3 of 4!

    Huh. I don't know why I enjoy reading so much. I just do and always have. I've never really questioned it. Some people like tv more - good for them, but I'd rather snuggle up with a good book.

    I write because I enjoy reading and I want to contribute to the future enjoyment of others. I hope that once LF is published, someone having a tough go of things will pick up my book on a whim and spend hours in front of a crackling fire lost in my world the way I've been lost in the worlds of others.

  11. About Moms... mine never made left turns. From ages 4-7, I remember thinking her car was broken.

    One day my Dad took me to town in her car. Yep, he made a left. I vaulted to the back seat seeking cover 'cause the world was gonna end. Confused, he jumped, yelled and SMACK - hit a parked car!

    After big family get togethers that she cooked, (like Thanksgiving)... when everyone was home and she'd hear a siren, she'd call 'em all to see if anybody was sick.

    She never sewed on Sundays 'cause if she went to heaven, God would make her take out evey stitch with her nose!

    Momma, being born in Kentucky tobacco country, dipped snuff and occassionally chewed tobacco... just like my toothless Granny.

    In the middle of a sweltering southern summer, Mom decides to go on a vinegar diet. For three days She drank vinegar from a jar, sat on the front porch fannin' herself and sweated off a half pound.

    At the tender age of five, she caught me gawkin' at two really ugle people who were a couple. She grabbed/pinched/pull my ear and me to a vacant corner of the store, looked me in my good eye and said..."There ain't never a pot so crooked, there ain't a lid to fit it!" (Took me years to dechipher that one, but it's true).

    RIP, Momma. Love and miss you deeply...

    Haste yee back ;-)

  12. Jim,

    Great post!!

    I read because I love to escape into a story that isn’t dictated by the visual details of a TV set, but rather the finite details my mind and imagination add.

    I write because it is like reading a truly wonderful book, except I get to decide what happens next.

  13. There is nothing in the world like a good book and I agree with you that books will always be around. Words are magical and as long as we have speech and communication, we will also have the written word in some format. But as a visual and sensory person, I love the whole act of buying a new book and smelling the new book smell and cracking open the crisp new pages. This is heaven to me.

    But people who don't read and are querying? Yeah, I think I know several. they all think writing is easy. If they read a book, they might be able to distinguish good writing from bad. I also read a statistic somewhere that of all the people who claim to wanting to write a book, only 20% actually complete one.

  14. LOL...Jim, you always make me laugh! You funny, FUNNY man! :)

    So, I read because it's a way of bringing high def visuals to my imagination.

    I write because I then get to add some surround sound.

  15. To the person who said,
    "I read because reading a book is the closest I will ever come to connecting fully with another human being"--have you ever tried love and sex? It's a good close second to the book thing.

  16. You can't tell me this stuff. I always wanted to be part of the minority, so now I will no longer read. It's all your fault, really.

    Now, in all seriousness...

    When will you blog about the publishing industry's secret shame-trashy reality TV addiction?

  17. Well, isn't our secret shame if we blog about it, now is it?

    But seriously, expect that entry sometime in the future. Because we do all watch.

    Team Bianca!

  18. I read because I like to be entertained occasionally by something that doesn't have channels and bad acting.

    I write because of the multiple voices in my head tell me to, and also because one day I intend on making a great deal of money for my wonderful agent.

    *waves to Jim*

  19. I read for an escape. TV is too in-your-face with constant advertising. I also read to stay informed. I write because I'm addicted.

  20. I read out of hunger.
    Which also may be why I write.

  21. I have to agree with what Jenny said: those three out of four people who claim to have read a book last year were likely too embarrassed to admit that they had not. But even if that is true, that's a positive thing: it shows they know that reading is something good to do. And if that is the case, maybe some day they really will pick up a book.

    Like most others, I read to absorb the distilled wisdom others have painstakingly gathered, or to be transformed by their poetry. Sometimes I read to look for shared experiences; sometimes I read to laugh at someone else's foibles; sometimes I read for sheer escapism -- or to enter a world I could never otherwise experience.

    I write mainly to figure things out on paper. I like the fact that when I write, I can take my time to say something and endlessly refine it until it is almost exactly what I want to say. Conversations tend to be dominated by the more confident: writing is one way I can express myself freely without being interrupted too often. And it is a way to leave something of myself in the world.

    Quite apart from all that, it beats ironing with a stick.

  22. Here's a significant study reported in the Boston Globe that confirms the deterioration not only in reading habits but reading competency in the U. S. Population.

    US report says young people reading a lot less

    There are no simple solutions to this problem. My guess is that if we don't get children reading a lot of books for pleasure by age 10 we've lost them for a lifetime.

    Unfortunately, the only way you're going to get that kid living in a way where they'll have the time and motivation to read a book a week for entertainment is by getting rid of the TV, Wii, Xbox, web access, and cell phone and canceling their after school soccer, violin, dance, yoga, and Chinese classes.

    Good luck.

  23. Jenny, I'm not sure I agree that if they aren't hooked on books by 10, they're lost for good.

    Both of my boys were reluctant readers for different reasons. It was always a struggle to get them to read. Eleven seemed to be the magic age for both of them and they just finally read the "right" book for them. Now my oldest (14) reads more than any of his friends, and the younger one (11) is just starting to appreciate what he reads. He'll be an avid reader in no time.

    There is always hope. Sometimes they just have to find the right book for them and a whole world opens up.

  24. I've known several boys who were late readers. One got hooked on Harry Potter, then went from there to Philip Pullman and Garth Nix; he is now a reader for life. Another got snagged by listening to his mother's audio tapes in the car. She 'accidentally' lost the last tape in a series and the poor lad was reduced to going to the library to check out the entire book and find out what happened.

    There are all sorts of ways to push reading.

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  26. It would seem anything but authentic to want to write if you don't regularly cull some pleasure from what has already already been written.

    Granted, writing few good sentences in a row can feel like something on the constructive side of narcotic relief and the strategic side of athletic achievment, and provides every bit the buzz of either or both.

    Without a frame of reference, however, without a true investment in books...the desire to to write one would seem individually theraputic at best, an insult to committed writers at worst, or, most likely, a lil' sumpin sumpin' for folks who daydream vividly enough they can actually avoid having to grind out the work -- and still feel damn good about it.

    It might actually sound good to someone somewhere...who's also buzzed.

  27. . . . i'm a little late to the party here (found the blog via one of those wandering google search link to link to link trips) . . . as i was reading your post i flashed on how many books i buy a year - upwards of 50 or so - and then check lots of books out of the library. and it never fails to blow my mind when someone tells me they don't read . . . how is that possible? there is something magical in the transmission of written words between people, and while tv and movies are awesome too, there is just something luscious about the feel of a book, it's weight, the turning of the pages, that moment when something the author writes leaps out straight into heart or mind and you laugh out loud or tear up . . . how could people not know the fabulousness of books for a Whole Year??? :)

  28. 1 in 4 don't read, I think I make up for them. I speed read everything, not on purpose, I just read fast. On average, I read two or three books a day.

    I'm getting smart though, I've started putting rusty newspaper skills into practice and I'm editing books in critique groups. Free reading material? I'm all over it!

    And when I can't find something to suit my tastes... I write.

  29. I read because there's nothing I love more than a good adventure and reading is an adventure on paper, as seen by someone else. When i read, I can't help but think, "What did the author think when he/she put this to paper?"

    It's definitely why I write: to give that adventure to someone who would like to read it.

  30. I can't imagine the hilarity of going through the "slush". Being a court reporter, recently, the slush about burned my brain out. But then, every now and then, was either a ruby or a piece of dog crap that looked like a sculpture of my ex-husband.

    Sending you my book soon. Amidst slush, rubies and unholy dog crap sculptures, I have been working on the sequel. Might as well send you the first one.

    By the way, reading the slush taught me a lot about what not to do when I write. Been trapped in a bank of slot machines lately?

    We can only hope.


  31. Hi Jim,

    I read because I love people and words. I write, well because, I love people and words.

    Great post.


  32. It's not bothering me so much that 1 in 4 don't read, but that all in four million ain't reading me! Got to fix that, so you know why I'm on your website, right?

  33. I am a serious bookaholic. In grade school, I would hold up my textbook with a book I was reading hidden behind it. At night, after bedtime, I hid under the covers with a flashlight to read. All the moves I've made over the years have included hundreds of pounds of books. My greatest tragedy was losing most of my books in an arson fire in 1991; I am slowly rebuilding my collection. The only thing I like as well as books is Guinness and single malt Scotch. I am, yours truly, author Luhra Tivis in Enid, Oklahoma

  34. I read and write for the same reason; I love a good story. Books will never die out because the market for them will never die. There will always be people who love books not just the stories they hold. These people will pass this love on to their children and so books will live on no matter where technology takes us.

    Reading a book is a different experience than reading the same story on some hand held device. The feel and smell of a book give it a physicality that electronic devices lack. Its story gives it personality. There is a reason many people say a good book is like a good friend; books are in and of themselves characters.

    The internet, television, and what technologies way come have no more chance of replacing books than plastic lawn furniture has of replacing handcrafted wood.

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  38. Keep up the good writing.


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